Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn praised the value of the press in his remarks after a state visit with Barack Obama, saying "as far as Ethiopia is concerned, we need journalists.” But almost in the same breath, he called for limits on free expression, suggesting Ethiopia’s domestic journalists work with violent terrorist groups

His comments are reflective of the country’s long-established record of human rights abuse and violation of the right to free expression in Ethiopia, including the prosecution and arrest of journalists on terrorism charges, the issuing of criminal charges for pursuing Internet security training, and the use of invasive spyware to surveil individuals they allege are associated with opposition political groups. 

When US President Barack Obama announced his state visit to Ethiopia this week, the first by a sitting President, things boded well for the possibility of change: US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes promised human rights would be squarely on the agenda, saying “We’ve seen too much intimidation, and even imprisonment of journalists, and the need for a viable space for civil society and political opposition in the country.” Ethiopia also took promising steps by releasing five members of the Zone 9 blogging collective along with journalist Reeyot Alemu in the weeks leading up to the visit.

But Desalegn’s remarks reveal the country still has a long way to go to improve its record on civil liberties. Though Obama referred to the government as “democratically elected,” Ethiopia is currently ranked 142 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and “Not Free” on Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World, Freedom of the Press and 2014 Freedom of the Net reports.

Obama himself emphasized in the press conference the need for democratic reform in Ethiopia, particularly around the issue of free expression: “In a global economy that’s increasingly driven by technology and the Internet, continued growth in Ethiopia depends on the free flow of information and open exchanges of ideas. I believe that when all voices are being heard, when people know that they’re included in the political process, that makes a country stronger and more successful and more innovative. So we discussed steps that Ethiopia can take to show progress on promoting good governance, protecting human rights, fundamental freedoms, and strengthening democracy.”

Prime Minister Desalegn asserted Ethiopia plans to reform, saying “My government has expressed its commitment to deepen the democratic process already underway in the country, and work towards the respect of human rights and improving governance.”

To bolster its position, there are several things the Ethiopian government can do right away to improve its human rights record:

  • Immediately free all journalists in prison, including the remaining Zone 9 bloggers, and relieve them of all charges for the “crime” of reporting the news.
  • End the prosecution of individuals for pursuing security training and using encryption technologies, and free Zelalem Workagegnehu, Yonatan Wolde, Abraham Solomon, and Bahiru Degu.
  • Cease and desist from using invasive surveillance technologies like FinFisher and Hacking Team’s Remote Control System to spy on Ethiopian journalists, diaspora, and opposition groups.